FUNERALS, GHOSTS, FENG SHUI AND SUPERSTITIONS IN SINGAPORE

SUPERSTITIONS IN SINGAPORE

On Campbell Lane you can sometimes Indian fortunetellers who use parakeets and playing cards to tell fortunes and predict the future for a dollar. When a fortune is told a bird is let out of its cage. It trots over to the cards and picks out the cards from which the fortuneteller reveals the fortune.

The number 8 is a popular luck number in Singapore as it is in China. It represents prosperity. Many of the gods worshipped by Singapore Chinese were once real life heros or mandarins from past Chinese dynasties. They are organized into a sort of cosmic bureaucracy.

National Geographic journalist Kenneth MacLeish visited a temple in Singapore where a crowd gathered around a papaya that somewhat said resembled a human hand to absorb its magical powers. At the same temple food offerings were made at an alter and then packed up and taken home. "The spirits eat only the spirit of the food. No need to waste the rest," one man told Macleish.

Superstition Thrives in Modern Singapore

Philip Lim of AFP wrote: “Whenever Christina Tang is overseas and returns to her hotel room, she always knocks on the door before entering even if she is the only occupant. The 25-year-old Singaporean marketing executive said knocking on the door is meant to seek permission from the "good brothers" -- spirits that might have taken over her room while she was away -- for her to stay over for the night. "It's just like visiting a friend. You would definitely not barge in without the courtesy of a doorbell or a knock on the door, right? To me, it's just respect." [Source: Philip Lim, AFP, August 19, 2012 ^*^]

“Singapore might be one of Asia's wealthiest and most well-educated societies, but quirky superstitions are part of daily life in the predominantly ethnic Chinese city-state. Superstition comes to the fore during the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival. Chinese superstition holds that the gates of hell are opened for spirits to wander across the mortal realm before they return to the underworld. During the month, property sales fall because it is considered inauspicious to make major purchases, and people refrain from staying out too late to avoid otherworldly encounters. Noisy streetside shows called "getai" featuring professional singers are staged to entertain the visiting spirits -- but don't sit on the empty front seats because they're reserved for the invisible guests. ^*^

“Traffic jams are typically caused not only by crumpled cars obstructing traffic but also by drivers slowing down to take note of the license plate numbers so that they can bet on them in the hugely popular four-digit lottery. Having bird droppings land on your head is also seen as a good omen for gamblers because it's so rare for one to be hit in the concrete jungle. A tree in a western suburb has attracted a following due to the likeness of a monkey on its bark, which believers say resembles that of a deity from Chinese mythology. The "Monkey Tree" drew so much attention at one point that authorities had to explain to a local newspaper that the visage was a "natural" response by the tree to various "minor accidents over the years". ^*^

“Even national icons are not immune to superstition. Operators of the bayside Singapore Flyer, said to be the world's largest ferris wheel, reversed its spinning direction in 2008 so that it revolves towards the financial district and not the sea. Masters of feng shui -- the ancient practice of balancing energies in any given space to attract good fortune -- advised them that the wheel's revolution should bring fortune into Singapore, not suck the good luck away. ^*^

“Superstitious practices are often mistakenly associated with religion in Singapore, where many Chinese are followers of Buddhism or Taoism, said Chung Kwang Tong, a high priest with the local Taoist Federation. "The religion itself does not have such practices," he told AFP. "A lot of them will just try because to them there is no harm in trying." Ang Swee Hoon, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, said even well-educated people resort to superstitious practices because of the highly competitive environment in Singapore. "Hence, to get a leg up, Singaporeans engage in more activities that will give them an advantage. Superstitious behaviours seemingly offer that," Ang said. "So, instead of superstitions being irrational, it may be perceived as rational." ^*^

“Ang said the opening of two massive casinos in 2010 further boosted superstitious practices in gambling-mad Singapore, which already has horse racing, sweepstakes, numbers games and sports betting operations. Red underwear is seen as sexy in many countries, but to Singaporean gamblers, it's just another way of attracting good fortune because red is regarded as a lucky colour among Chinese. Gamblers and financial traders often wear red undergaments before placing a bet or playing the stock market. "Gamblers are generally a more superstitious lot," Ang said. ^*^

Luohan Fish

In the early 2000s, luohan, small brightly-colored fish with bulbous foreheads, became all the rage among ethnic Chinese in Singapore in part because they were regarded as good luck. The fish are named after the Eight Immortals of Chinese Taoism, which are regarded as very auspicious, in part because the number eight is regarded as lucky. Some luohan have markings that resemble Chinese characters and lucky numbers, making them even more sought after.

Luohan became so popular that they were featured in New Year’s cards and shops were opened that were devoted entirely to the fish. They sold tanks, food and other hardware necessary to keep the fish alive. Luohan with particularly auspicious and rare markings and coloring fetched as much as $40,000 a piece and theft of valuable fish were reported in the newspapers.

Luohan are the product of an artificial breeding effort in the Malaysian mining town of Ipoh. They first appeared in 1997. No one is quite sure how they were created or who did it but they are believed to be a cross between “feng shui” fish, or a “sparkling mamonon,” with a “redface monk.” They breed quickly, eat almost anything and no two fish have the same markings.

An ideal luohan is about six to eight inches long and has a body that is roughly one and half rimes long as its height. The face should be bright red and the fins and tail should be in good condition and be symmetrical. The forehead should be large but not grotesquely large. They only problem with keeping luohan is that they are very territorial and two of them can not be kept in the same tank without one tearing the other to shreds.

Feng Shui

Feng shui is widely practiced in Singapore. Many businesses, including Federal Express, Fuji Xerox, Wal Disney, Motorola, Pepsico and Lucent Technologies have hired geomacers for advice. Professional gemocacers charge between 50 cents and US$1 per square meter for for advise. Singapore’s School of Feng Shui has no trouble attracting students.

Feng shui is a Chinese system of geomancy based on positive energy (or ‘qi’ in Chinese). Five elements areinvolved -- wood, fire, earth, metal and water – each with its unique association to certain colours, materials and symbolism. For example, the colour of the fire element is red, while that of wood are green and aqua-related colours. A geomancer's key instrument, called a compass, is a round board with components that include nine flying stars, eight lunar mansions and the five elements of earth, fire, metal, water and wood.

Ian Lloyd, a National Geographic photographer and long time visitor to Singapore, said, “Even in matters of religion and spirituality Singaporean practicality shows up. I know of a number of businessmen who have had their furniture rearranged by a feng shui geomancer because it might mean better business prospects—even though they didn’t necessarily believe in feng shui. In one famous case, a geomancer advised a struggling hotel to reposition its doors on an angle, and sure enough, shortly afterwards, business did pick up.”

Marina Bay: Singapore’s Fengshui Central

Deborah Choo of Yahoo! News wrote: “Feng shui experts have called the Marina Bay area a hub of prosperity for Singapore. And as long as the landmarks around it prosper, so will the country. Master Gwee Kim Woon of Fulu Geomancy Centre told Yahoo! Singapore that the three-tower structure of Marina Bay Sands represent luck, prosperity, longevity. The subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands posted a record S$1 billion record revenue in the forth quarter of forth quarter of foscall 2011-2012. In the filing, MBS’ hotel occupancy averaged an incredible 98 percent even at $341 a night. MBS is flanked on its right by the Singapore Flyer – which symbolises a water wheel that rotates clockwise to usher in positive energy which is contained in the Marina Barrage, said Master Gwee, who has been in the fengshui business for nearly 40 years. [Source: Deborah Choo, Yahoo! May 15, 2012 /~/]

“On its left side is the Art Science Museum – a lotus designed structure that “creates stability for revenue growth”. Directly opposite MBS is the statue of the Merlion, which Gwee says guards bad ‘qi’ (or energy) from entering Singapore and protects the nation’s prosperity. The position of the Merlion itself, he adds, is also “ruled by the Green Dragon which symbolizes increase in population” as it attracts luck and wealth. /~/

“In early 2009, months after the global financial crisis hit, the Merlion was ominously struck by lightning, causing a stir among citizens. Repair on the then-36-year old statue took over two weeks and damaged areas were re-plastered and the structure was assessed to be structurally sound. Professor Liew Ah Choy from the National University of Singapore's faculty of engineering had suggested that a lightning rod be placed on or near the Merlion to prevent future accidents. /~/

“Two other feng shui veterans, Master Lee Yuhon of leeyuhon.com and Master Jo Ching of destinyasia.com.sg, agreed with Master Gwee on the importance of Marina Bay as a hub for wealth. Ching says the reason for the prosperity of Marina Bay is that it forms the “mouth of Singapore”. “It is a very important feature in the study of landform feng shui as it governs the prosperity of the buildings in its vicinity. Hence, with such a water mouth being created there (due to land reclamation), it enhances the feng shui there, “ he said. Ching said it’s no surprise a financial hub (Marina Bay Financial Centre) and several other up-market luxury condos such as The Sail and Marina Bay Residences were built around the “water mouth” so that it could contribute to Singapore’s economic growth. /~/

“However Lee cautioned that energies cannot be “tapped” wrongly, or else disaster would strike. For example, he said the Merlion, Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer all had to be “tapped” in the right way. “The symbol of the Merlion is wisdom, education and reputation,” he said. “MBS represents competitive strength, and the Singapore Flyer that of authority. Each of their symbolic energy has to be tapped accordingly for best results. If tapped wrongly, competitive strength can turn into aggression, and authority can turn into betrayal,” he said. /~/

“While Master John Lok, principal consultant of FengShui0011.com, agreed that MBS is ideally situated within the prosperity hub, he warned that there is a flip side relative to Singapore’s birth date: economic prosperity at the cost of social unrest. “This is a good position for promoting tourism, but it is not good for society as it will raise debate and argument among Singaporeans, especially how Marina Bay Sands is operating a gambling business,” Lok said. /~/

Investing in Asia? Better Call a Geomancer

On investing in Singapore in 2006, the Year of the Dog, Chan Sue Ling of Bloomberg News wrote: “Singapore home prices will rise this year at more than twice the 3.8 percent pace of 2005, according to the forecast of Chong Swan Lek. His prediction comes not from studying the real estate market or economic data, but from feng shui. "It's the year of fire and earth, which means you'll make money out of property," said Chong, 65, a fourth-generation Chinese geomancer. "We can expect anything between a 7 and 10 percent rise in property prices."[Source: Chan Sue Ling, Bloomberg News, January 28, 2006]

Investor Louis Wong agrees that home prices will rise, though he doubts the precision of Chong's tools. Still, human behavior is affected by the chi, or energy, that surrounds us, Wong said. Sometimes, geomancers get it right. "There have been predictions in the past about catastrophes, epidemics and natural disasters, which have come true because of the movement of the stars," he said. "But for trends such as property, I don't think it can be accurate."

Tan Khoon Yong expects an even bigger increase. The 11th animal in the Chinese zodiac will usher in an "energetic" year for the property market, the Singapore geomancer said. He sees home prices rising 10 percent to 15 percent. Tan, 51, also bases his forecast on his compass, taking into account the dog's characteristics. Trends from past years support his prediction, he said. "Property prices usually drop drastically during the Year of the Tiger and recover slowly but steadily in the subsequent years," Tan said. "The last two years of the Tiger, 1986 and 1998, were very bad years."

Tan has been right before. In 2004, the Year of the Monkey, he predicted that Singapore's Straits Times Index would break 2000 by about midyear for the first time since Dec. 13, 2000. The benchmark measure reached 2003 on Sept. 15 and ended the western Gregorian calendar year at 2066. This year, the index probably will rise 10 percent from the end of 2005 to a record 2600, Tan said, adding that the impulsive nature of dogs means the gains may not be sustained. "The Year of the Dog is a strange year, because it's a 'volcano' year," he said. "When it erupts, there'll be very quick, very large gains, but then it will sink quickly and to very low depths as well."

Geomancers also are tapped to choose auspicious dates for weddings and advise on the design and interior layout of buildings. Tan said he charges a minimum of $237 for wedding dates and $850 for arranging homes. Merrill Lynch in Singapore consulted a geomancer when a building with "sharp" metal edges arose near its office, said Kong Eng Huat, managing director of the lender's private banking arm. Sharp edges are said to direct negative energy. "We actually had someone come in and take a look," Kong said. "They gave us a few suggestions, like changing the location of plants, but nothing drastic.”

Trances and Mediums

Mediums in Singapore skewer their cheeks like shish-kebabs and slice their tongues as they if were pieces of steak. Journalist Bryan Hodgson observed one two hour ritual that ended with a medium slashing his own back with a sword; raising cruel welts but no blood. When the ritual was over Hodgson ended up sharing a meal of fermented bean curd with the medium who turned out to be a regular guy.

On a “temple medium" that turned out to be a sexual molester, AFP reported: “A repeat sex offender who pretended to be a "temple medium" to molest a woman has received the maximum sentence of two years' jail, media reports said. Loo Chee Seng, 51, convinced a 27-year-old woman in 2000 that he was an incarnation of a god and molested her after saying it was part of a ritual to cleanse her of bad luck and make the moles on her body disappear, the Straits Times said. District judge Kow Keng Siong said in court when he sentenced Loo on Friday it was "clear" that the maximum sentence was necessary. [Source: Agence France Presse, October 2, 2004]

Loo was released from jail in 1998 after serving a four-year sentence for a similar con job, in which he convinced a woman into performing oral sex on him and then raped her. Defence lawyer David Ng said in his mitigation plea that "there was no physical violence involved". But deputy public prosecutor Adam Nakhoda replied that a deterrent sentence was needed as Loo was "unrepentant" and had caused the victim "mental anguish", the paper said.

Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore

Every year, usually in the month of August, the Chinese in Singapore observe a large-scale tradition of paying respects to the dead. Taoist Chinese believe that during this month, the “Gates of Hell” are opened and souls of the dead are freed and allowed to roam the earth. Evil spirits are placated during the Hungry Ghost festival with prayers and by the burning of fake money.

The best places to watch how the traditional rites are practised in Singapore are in the soul of the heartlands, where fellow believers congregate to burn incense sticks and present their offerings in the form of prayer, fruit such as Mandarin oranges, food such as roasted suckling pig, bowls of rice and occasionally a local Chinese cake made especially for the occasion. It is not uncommon to see various forms of tentage set up in open fields during this period, for the Chinese also believe in entertaining the spirits with boisterous live wayang and getai performances not only depicting tales of the divine gods and goddesses, but also bawdy stand-up comedy with a local twang, song and dance numbers in the various Chinese dialects and even sensually acrobatic pole dancing by felinely lithe spandex clad dancers. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Everyone is welcome to watch the show as long as you don’t sit at the front row, which is reserved for the “special guests”. The festival is so widely-practised here that special joss paper bins have been set up for believers to burn their paper money in, believed to translate into great fortune in the afterlife. Small altars can also be seen outside many homes, both on private property and in public housing areas. From grand feasts costing thousands of dollars to a mélange of puppetry, opera and singing performances, the various ways with which the Chinese appease these roaming spirits is fascinating to watch, these festivities usually take place across the various neighbourhoods like Chinatown, Redhill and Geylang — so check these out if you’re feeling a little adventurous and want to lose yourself in a truly local experience.

Double Hungry Ghost Festival in 2006 in Singapore

In mid summer 2006, Reuters reported: “It's the time of the year many Chinese businesses dread -- the hungry ghost festival, when families avoid moving house, couples postpone their wedding plans and tourists shy away from beach resorts. But businesses may be hit by a double whammy this year due to an oddity in the Chinese lunar calendar that results in two "seventh" months -- also known as the hungry ghost festival or Mid-Summer Ghost Festival when the gates of hell open and the dead walk among the living. [Source: Reuters, August 5, 2006 \*/]

“But it's not all gloom for Chinese during these two months. For some Singapore gamblers, this is a rare opportunity to hunt for lucky numbers to play the "4-Digits" (4D) lottery. "People will often use this chance to ask ghosts for lottery numbers," said Lee Inn Peng, a Taoist medium who has been practicing for 21 years. "These people are desperate, and will try anything. Sometimes they are at the graveyards with talismans, burning offerings asking for numbers." In Singapore, where 75 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, business associations often run street performances, known as "getai," to entertain the living and the dead. Traditional female Getai performers will dress in more conservative outfits and costumes while the younger may tend to wear more revealing outfits and sexy costumes like those found here. \*/

“Apart from inviting popular singers from overseas to perform, these "getai" shows also include auctions for auspicious items such as oranges, pineapples and charcoal -- which are associated with wealth in Chinese, and which are stacked on gold-tinted plates and elaborately wrapped in red ribbons. "Some people will bid up to S$10,000 ($6,300) for these items because they believe it will bring them good luck," said Aaron Tan, who runs a company that organizes street performances. Low said these items are usually packed with a slip of paper with several sets of four numbers, so that winners of the bid can use those numbers to bet in the 4D lottery. "There are people who have struck lottery on these numbers and believe it is time to pay back the spirits who have helped them, so they don't mind paying a high price at the auctions," Low said. \*/

Ghostbuster at Work

Describing a Chinese ghostbuster at work in Singapore, Philip Lim of AFP wrote: “The corner looked empty...’There's an old woman standing there, wearing an old blue dress, and she has curly hair,’ professional exorcist Chew Hon Chin told his stunned client in the brightly-lit living room. ‘Let's ignore her for now. Let me clear your house of dirty stuff first and I'll move her out later,’ the 64-year-old Chew told housewife Zhang Qiao Zhu, who hurriedly led him to one of the flat's bedrooms.” [Source: Philip Lim, Agence France-Presse, February 12, 2011]

“Inside, the stern-faced Chew produced a pair of metal rods bent at a 40-degree angle, stared at the black balls swaying gently at each end and finally pointed to a closed cupboard. ‘There is a blue towel with a striped pattern inside,’ Chew told Zhang in Mandarin. ‘Take it out and remove it from the room.’ Zhang, 56, complied meekly, not questioning Chew's pronouncements or his apparent ability to peer through closed wardrobe doors to identify "tainted" objects within.” [Ibid]

“Chew exorcises ghosts and repels curses for a living, and the word "Ghostbusters" is spelled out in English in a red sign with gold lettering above the entrance to his shop. Zhang called him when she sensed there was something strange in her neighbourhood, or more specifically her house, after feeling someone — or something — choking her every night whenever she tried to sleep.” [Ibid]

“On a another house call, Chew used his metal rods to pinpoint what he said was the spirit's location, then flung coarse salt into a small bronze urn filled with burning charcoal. A helper tossed in onion skins to produce an acrid burst of smoke. ‘Ghosts are afraid of this smell, when the salt crackles it's like an explosion to ghosts and they will run,’ Chew said confidently.” Later he took his clients to a quiet clearing in suburban Singapore, where he lit a ring of fire around them and instructed them to step over it. After the ritual, the clients were soaked in a tub of herb-spiced water. ‘Fire burns away all the evil from your body, water cleanses the soul,’ Chew said.” [Ibid]

Ghostbuster’s Story

“Chew—a BMW-driving former nightclub owner—said business was good. Chew, who says he handles three to four cases a day, offers services from "luck enhancement" costing 88 Singapore dollars (68 US) to "deceased appeasement" at "100 dollars per soul" — although more difficult spirits command prices reaching into the thousands.” [Source: Philip Lim, Agence France-Presse, February 12, 2011]

“Chew said he acquired his skills after being cured of a curse placed by a vengeful former employee whom he had sacked. He vomited blood, mosquitoes and metal filings for more than 10 years, Chew claimed. After his recovery, Chew said the supreme Taoist deity known as the Jade Emperor visited him, made him a "godson" and told him the secrets of divining and exorcism, which entailed 108 days of meditation on a deserted island in neighbouring Indonesia.” [Ibid]

“Today he says has a kind of sixth sense. "I have the eye of the heavens — when you come into my office I can immediately see the bad things behind you," the devout Taoist told an AFP reporter, pointing to the supposed location of a "third eye" on his forehead. Chew said this enhanced vision allows him to detect malevolent energy emanating from specific items which he describes in painstaking detail to customers visiting his shop.” [Ibid]

“Chew's shop, situated in a shopping mall a 15-minute drive from the financial centre, also doubles as a ghostly jail, with sealed plastic "cells" containing objects discovered during his work lining a wall beside an elaborate altar to the Jade Emperor. Vials containing dark liquids, macabre finger-sized dolls and wooden carvings of faces beneath an ominous sign saying: ‘Nice to see, fun to touch. Once broken, more business for us!’” [Ibid]

“Chew was sanguine about his close proximity to the spirit world, "As a policeman or soldier, I should not be afraid of criminals or war. As a ghostbuster, I should definitely not be afraid of ghosts, in fact ghosts should be afraid of me!" [Ibid]

Funerals in Singapore

Sago Lane (near Chinatown) is home to several funeral shops where paper yachts, Mercedes and mansions can be purchased to be burned in afterlife ceremonies for the dead. Other paper effigies include motorcycles, televisions, musical instruments and even paper girls for deceased philanders.

Funerals are Chinese Singaporeans are often held in "death houses," where mourners stand around half-open coffins praying and chanting, and flower-decked funeral trucks with musicians take the dead to crematoria. Some Singaporean Chinese put burlap bags over their heads and wear straw sandals during funerals.

Card games are a common way to pass the time at traditional Chinese funerals, which can sometimes last more than a week. In the mid 2000s there were reports of criminals paying off grieving relatives to run their gambling operations at wakes. Associated Press reported: “Crime syndicate "runners'' check newspaper obituary pages for funerals and obtain permission from bereaved families to gamble there, The Straits Times. A family is offered 300 Singapore dollars (US$183, euro136) a night, and the "runners'' are paid S$100 (US$61, euro45) every time they secure a funeral, the report said. Gamblers are informed at the last minute where to turn up, and "runners'' act as lookouts during the gambling sessions. Police spokeswoman Sandra Yip told The Associated Press nine people were arrested on Dec. 3 for gambling at a wake. Gamblers and card game organizers face fines and jail time if convicted. [Source: AP, December 6, 2004]

Singapore has only one cemetery. It is expected to stay open until 2064. Singapore's Chinese, Christian and Hindus (about 84 percent of the population) do not require burial. the government encourages then to consider cremation as a cost-saving measure as well as an environmental one.

Reuters reported: “Singapore's environment agency says more people are opting for cremation over burial, with the proportion rising from 66 percent in 1992 to 80 percent in 2011. That is nearly the entire population if those whose religions require burial are excluded. Ang Jolie, funeral director at Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour, whose customers are mostly Chinese, who make up about 75 percent of Singapore's population, said the need to remove the body after 15 years is the main reason why many opt for cremation. "The younger generation is more pragmatic and they may not want to trouble the future generations with the exhumation," she added.

Burials and Graveyards in Singapore

According to government data, there 60 cemeteries left in Singapore, but only one accepts new burials -- the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Complex in the northern suburbs. And the burial period there is limited to 15 years, after which graves have to be exhumed. Local media has said the island-state had 229 burial grounds in 1952 but most had since been exhumed to make way for housing, roads and industrial developments. One of the most popular shopping malls along posh Orchard Road, the Ngee Ann City complex which houses designer boutiques like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, used to be a burial ground. [Source: Bernice Han, AFP, September 5, 2011]

Singapore’s Taoist Gravedigger Taunted by Spirits of the Dead

In March 2009, AFP reported: “Wong Shun Feng says he has seen spirits, been afflicted by supernatural phenomena and taken advice from gods -- and that it's all just part of the job. Affectionately known to his friends as "Tua Ya Pek" after a Taoist god of the spiritual underworld, Wong is a gravedigger who exhumes the bones of the dead to make way for development in Singapore. According to Taoist belief, Wong is among the first to greet the dead when they embark on their journey beyond the grave. But instead of guiding the spirits towards reincarnation, nirvana (transcendence) or the "nine hells," he sends them to a new earthly resting place as cemeteries make way for roads, housing and public services. [Source: AFP, March 14, 2009 |^|]

“The dead are not always willing to move, he says. "I've seen spirits hovering beside me as I dig their grave, heard them whisper to me 'Ah Tee (young man), please don't move me'," Wong recalls matter-of-factly. But not all spirits are so benign, he said. The 53-year-old, who has been a gravedigger for almost 30 years, says he once saw a tree standing over a grave he was exhuming "shaking violently when trees next to it were still -- and there was no breeze". He said once he was even "punished" for disrespecting the dead when he swore at a grave. "In the evening after the dig, my left forearm was completely stiff even though I did not injure it, like the forearm of a corpse, and it was only after midnight that I regained use of it," said Wong, gesturing to the affected area.|^|

“Nevertheless, he says he is not afraid of the supernatural. "As long as you have a good heart, they won't harm you," he said. Neither does he care that people here might look down on him as an anachronism in a Westernised society. "People might think that this type of work is taboo but I'm fine with it. I like the rugged life," he said. |^|

Singapore’s Taoist Gravedigger Taunted by Spirits of the Dead

AFP reported: “A stocky man, Wong cuts an imposing figure with a variety of tattoos, the most prominent of which are the images of Tua Ya Pek and Li Ya Pek emblazoned across his chest and back. The images of the two Taoist deities, who are said to be in charge of keeping spirits in line, are not there for decoration. "I respect the gods, that's why I tattoo them on my body," said Wong, who claims to have seen apparitions of the gods and received lessons on life and work from them. [Source: AFP, March 14, 2009 |^|]

“On a recent exhumation conducted by the Singapore Land Authority to clear a Chinese cemetery in northern Singapore for redevelopment, it took Wong and three colleagues nearly three hours to dig a narrow hole about four metres (12 feet) deep. Using simple tools such as plowshares, crowbars and wicker baskets, they burrowed through soil, sand and cement, which the rich used in the past to seal their graves, before finally reaching the coffin.|^|

“Prying open the lid, Wong and another gravedigger picked out the bones and washed them with rice wine before handing them to the family, who gave them red packets containing token sums of money in appreciation. These envelopes are the main source of income for gravediggers because the 100 dollar (65 US) payment for each exhumation only goes to one individual and the gravediggers take turns receiving it. "The income is not fixed. It depends on how generous the families are with their red packets," said Wong. As the work is not stable he supplements his earnings with odd jobs such as house painting and repairs. |^|

“But he has his hands full for the moment as the 70,000-square-metre (753,000-square-feet) Guang Xiao Shan Cemetery, near the border with Malaysia, has been earmarked for conversion into a train depot. The pace of Singapore's development has meant that between 1970 and 1998, more than 240,000 graves in 100 cemeteries were exhumed, the latest available estimate shows. And according to Wong, all the deceased, including the current "residents," must be placated. "Ghosts are the same as human beings," he said. "They have feelings and emotions as well. How would you feel if you had to shift after living in the same place for 50 years?" When asked about his own mortality, Wong shrugged as he pointed to the tattoo of the deity Li Ya Pek smiling serenely on his chest. "I haven't really thought about it. Let's see what my big brother says," he said with a laugh. |^|

Dead but Still Paying for Insurance in Singapore

In 2005, Tan Mae Lynn wrote in the New Paper, “Fifteen people continued to pay for their insurance premiums from their graves. Yes, the premiums for their Dependants' Protection Scheme (DPS) continued to be deducted from their CPF accounts even though they were already dead. In total, the CPF Board collected $2,996 from them. It continued the deductions as it didn't know they were dead. So, the insurance claims due to their families were not paid out either. There were 201 others, too, whose claims were not paid by the CPF Board. The report revealed that the insurance claims of 216 people, amounting to $7.4 million, were not given to their next-of-kin. The policies include DPS and the Home Protection Scheme (HPS).[Source: Tan Mae Lynn, New Paper, July 19, 2005]

What's more, half of the 216 people had died more than two years ago, including 43 who died more than eight years ago. Singaporeans who use their CPF funds to pay for their HDB housing loans have to be insured under HPS, provided they are in good health. The scheme helps their families pay off any outstanding loan on the flat should they die before the age of 65 or if they become permanently incapacitated physically or mentally. Under DPS, a CPF member's family can receive up to $44,000 in insurance claim if he or she dies or become physically or mentally disabled.

So why was the money not paid? The board admitted it had failed to process some of the claims by mistake. But it added there had also been cases where the family members could not be contacted or did not provide adequate information. The board's spokesman told The New Paper: 'The claims that were not processed were cases where the family members of the deceased had not come forward to make the claim on the Dependants' Protection Scheme or Home Protection Scheme. 'When the board became aware of the members' deaths later through checks made by us, we tried contacting the family members. However, some cases remained outstanding as the family members could not be contacted or did not respond.'

To pay out an insurance claim, the board needs a death certificate. The spokesman said: 'We were unable to process the claims for cases where the family members did not provide the death certificates or could not be contacted.' And the 15 people who continued to pay insurance premiums from their graves? That has stopped. The board has refunded the premiums deducted together with interest, said the spokesman.

Singapore Jails Man for Faking His Death

In 2008, Reuters reported: “A Singapore man was jailed for three years after he faked his own death in a civil war shoot-out in Sri Lanka in 1987 to escape his creditors and claim S$331,341 ($243,600) in insurance money, a newspaper reported on Saturday. The Straits Times said that Gandaruban Subramaniam fled Singapore more than 20 years ago -- harassed by creditors and illegal money lenders since the failure of his car rental business -- and moved to London to work as a street sweeper. [Source: Reuters, May 31, 2008]

The 60-year old eventually settled in Sri Lanka where he managed to obtain a death certificate stating he had been killed in a shootout between government troops and tamil Tiger rebels, allowing his family to claim on his insurance policies. But he returned to Singapore a number of times using a fake Sri Lankan passport and also remarried his wife in Sri Lanka in 1994 and fathered a son, their fourth child, two years later. The couple has since divorced. Gandaruban's scam was discovered by a Singapore lawyer and arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport last October. His former wife and brother both served jail time for their part in the fraud, but have since completed their sentences.

Singapore Recycles Graves as a Space-Saving Measure

The land shortage in Singapore is so severe that the Environment Ministry passed laws in 1998 that stated that bodies could remain in graves for a maximum of 15 years and then the graves had to be “recycled.” The bodies of followers of religion in which burial is mandatory (Muslims, Jews and Bahais) are moved to a grave one-eighth the size of the original grave. The rest must be cremated under the law, with remains placed in special facilities called columbria.

In 2005, The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported: “Singapore is opening tens of thousands of graves in a program to recycle graveyard space. The remains of 18,000 people are being exhumed in the first, year-long stage of the city-state's program. Another 18,000 will be exhumed in phase two, which starts in June 2006. Most of the bones will be cremated and placed in a vault. Opened in 1947, Chao Chu Kang cemetery, which holds 200,000 graves, is the only cemetery open for burial in Singapore. But in 1998, the government decided the burial period for all people in the cemetery would be limited to 15 years. Similar programs exist in Hong Kong and Taiwan. With a population of more than four million and its small size (roughly 700 square kilometres), Singapore could run out of burial plots if space isn't recycled. Government newspaper advertisements announce exhumation programs so people can identify late relatives. Any remains that are not identified are kept for three years, then scattered at sea. [Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corp, April 13, 2005]

“Government officials say they haven't run into any objections. "So far, we've not met anybody who insisted that they can't allow their ancestors to be exhumed. Some people do it on their own, they engage their own contractor. They can choose the date and time," Wong Chiu Ying, director of the exhumation program, said on Wednesday, April 13. There are no plans to disturb the remains of people buried in the territory's 50 to 60 other closed cemeteries.” [Ibid]

Reuters reported: “Term limits for graves are even stricter in Hong Kong, which requires the removal of bodies from public cemeteries after six years. If families do not remove the remains, authorities will exhume and cremate them, burying the ashes in a communal grave.

Singapore Graveyard Dug Up to Make Way for Highrise Development

In early 2013 workers with heavy machinery began constructing an eight-lane highway across Singapore’s oldest surviving major cemetery. Reuters reported: The whole of Bukit Brown - the resting place of more than 100,000 people, including some of Singapore's pioneering business and clan leaders and their large, intricately carved tombs - will eventually be used for residential development. At least 30 people buried there have streets named after them. Some families have begun removing the remains of their ancestors, and authorities plan to dig up the remaining graves in January. [Source: Reuters, November 27, 2012 <<<]

“But Nature Society (Singapore) and other groups want Bukit Brown left alone, describing the forested area as "a natural and historical treasure trove". Another body, the Bukit Brown Community, has been conducting weekly tours to raise awareness of the area's rich past. "There is no other cemetery like Bukit Brown. The amount of historical information that we can find there and the amount of Chinese culture, heritage and custom is unique," said Raymond Goh, a founding member of Bukit Brown Community. <<<

“On the headstone of community leader Tan Boon Liat's grave are 12 rays of sunlight, showing his longtime association with Sun Yat Sen's Kuomintang whose logo is a white sun with twelve rays on a blue background. Tan, who died in the 1930s, was a great grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, for whom one of Singapore's largest hospitals is named. "If there is any Singapore site that is worthy of UNESCO nomination, it is Bukit Brown," said Bukit Brown Community's Goh, referring to the United Nations body whose Heritage Site designations are keenly sought for the boost they can give to tourism. <<<

Bernice Han of AFP wrote: “ Bukit Brown, officially opened in 1922, is named after an English shipowner called George Henry Brown who arrived on the island in 1840. "Bukit" means "hill" or "mountain" in Malay. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) explained that land scarcity meant priority would have to be given to other pressing needs including housing and infrastructure. "Tradeoffs will have to be made between what we can keep and what we need to accommodate," said a spokesperson for the URA, which is tasked with land use planning. "The clearance of closed cemeteries in areas that are needed for development enables us to recycle land to accommodate new needs." The 86-hectare (212.42 acre) graveyard has been earmarked as a future housing site. [Source: Bernice Han, AFP, September 5, 2011]

In Bukit Brown lies Singapore's largest and possibly most elaborate tomb where Ong Sam Leong, a successful businessman who died in 1918, is buried. His wife, who passed away in 1935, is interred next to him. Two life-size stone carvings of Indian Sikh guards armed with rifles stand in front of the tomb, with a dried-up narrow moat surrounding the tombstone, one of 80,000 graves in the cemetery. Wealthy businessmen used to hire Sikh guards in old Singapore. Decorative mosaic tiles, their colour faded with the passage of time, form a huge rectangle in front of the tomb, whose walls are decorated with carvings of Chinese deities as well as ancient poems. "We call this tomb the eighth wonder of Singapore," said Raymond Goh of Asia Paranormal Investigators, which runs cemetery tours on request. "It is so amazing." [Ibid]

Singapore Police Bar Pro-euthanasia Talk

In May 2009, AFP reported: “Singapore police have rejected an international pro-euthanasia group's application to hold a talk here on the controversial topic, the organisation said. Exit International, an Australia-based group which upholds terminally ill people's right to die, expressed disappointment at the decision. The police had no immediate comment on a report by the local Straits Times newspaper saying the group was denied a meeting permit because of fears that it would promote suicide attempts, which is a crime here along with assisting suicide. [Source: AFP, May 1, 2009 >><<]

“Describing the cancellation as "immensely disappointing," Exit International director Philip Nitschke said in a statement that the decision by the police "seems arbitrary in the extreme." "What we had planned for the meeting was nothing even remotely illegal," he added. Singapore Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the talk should not be allowed because it would teach people how to commit suicide, the Straits Times reported. >><<

“A copy of the agenda of the talk made available by Exit International to AFP showed the discussion would largely focus on legal issues facing euthanasia locally and worldwide. Nitschke told AFP by telephone that he would be exploring legal and other options when he arrives in Singapore on May 11. "We'll be talking to Singapore lawyers when we get there... we'll offer a web workshop where the same material (as the cancelled talk) will be presented online" he said. >><<

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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